Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Transcendence
Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall
Thanks to Disney, Johnny Depp has a full dance card in 2016. Sequels to both Alice in Wonderland (Through the Looking Glass) and Pirates of the Caribbean (Dead Men Tell No Tales) will bow that year. Not that he’s slacking off in 2014, mind you. He still has three projects to be released (Mortdecai, London Fields and Into the Woods) … after Transcendence, that is. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi thriller, a terminally ill scientist (Depp) uploads his mind to a computer, which grants him power beyond his wildest dreams and makes him unstoppable. The Plus: The players. This high concept flick stars Depp (Dark Shadows), Hall (Iron Man 3), Morgan Freeman (Last Vegas), Cillian Murphy (The Dark Knight Rises), Cole Hauser (Olympus Has Fallen), Paul Bettany (Priest) and Kate Mara (Netflix’s House of Cards). The Minus: The gamble. With Transcendence, Christopher Nolan’s (The Dark Knight, Inception) longtime cinematographer Wally Pfister is making his directorial debut. A reported budget of $100 million makes this an expensive set of training wheels for a first-timer, especially on a holiday weekend known for courting families.

A Haunted House 2
Marlon Wayans, Jaime Pressley
In this R-rated send-up of everything from Paranormal Activity to The Conjuring, Malcolm (Wayans) starts fresh with his new girlfriend (Pressley) and her two children by moving them into their dream home … which, of course, gets plagued by bizarre paranormal events. The Plus: The genre. Love them or hate them, spoof comedies have ruled at the box office before, regardless of quality (Not Another Teen Movie, Date Movie, Epic Movie). The Wayans family (Marlon stars in, writes and produces A Haunted House 2) has found a particular knack for mining fool’s gold out of this genre. Keenan Ivory, Shawn and Marlon Wayans all had a hand in the Scary Movie franchise, which turned the art of parody into a money-making machine for Dimension Films. Likewise, Haunted House scared up over $40 million. The Minus: The odds. Superhero Movie and the Wayans’ own Dance Flick brought diminishing returns to the genre, bringing the genre to all but a stop as of 2009. With the Scary Movie franchise still in the mix, is this genre plain scared out?

 

Now Playing

Rio 2
Voices of Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway
**1/2 — Way to Keep it Rio
Birds of a familiar feather flocking together for more of the same, the loud, colorful, but ultimately so-so sequel Rio 2 doesn’t go south so much as stick to the same no-frills flight pattern. In this G-rated animated musical comedy, Blu (Eisenberg), Jewel (Hathaway) and their three kids get hurdled Rio de Janeiro to the wilds of the Amazon where they go beak-to-beak with the vengeful Nigel (Jemaine Clement) and meet the most fearsome adversary of all: Jewel’s father (Andy Garcia). Stocked full of Brazilian nuts, the Amazon-set follow-up rightly tries upping the character count, “dramatic” ante, slapsticky gags, and adult-pleasing one-liners … but the end result still often feels like reheated leftovers. Of course, families with non-discerning children won’t care much, but this second helping is more of a deuce than the original, pushing in its chips on an eco-themed “Be Yourself” theme that feels like it was culled from the deleted scenes from the cutting room floor of Happy Feet. Mind you, it’s a visual feast for the eye and, occasionally, the ears but why not just re-watch the superior first go-round? There’s not a bad note among the celebrity pipes hired to give lip service to the fuss and feathers. Director Carlos Saldanha (the Ice Age series) and Blue Sky Studios definitely possess a gift for bringing funtastic characters to life and Rio 2 definitely boasts its share, even if some returning faces literally and ridiculously get airlifted into the action. When a ballad by a poison tree frog emerges as the flick’s standout moment, however, it might be time to put the ixnay on chapter three.

Draft Day
Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner
*** — Any Driven Sunday
An occasionally white knuckle Draft worth not dodging, Kevin Costner’s latest seizes the Day for diehard sports fans. For a football flick, there’s decidedly very little gridiron action. In this PG-13-rated sports drama, general manager Sonny Weaver (Costner) has the opportunity to rebuild his team when he sacrifices all to trade for the number one pick (Chadwick Boseman) at the NFL Draft. Moving the game from the backfield to the back offices, Draft Day plays out more like a political thriller with laughs and romance shoehorned in. The movie does most of this surprisingly well, juggling comedy, drama, and sports references in equal but awkward measure. Granted, many of the yuks and NFL worship get laid on too thick, but it’s the clever machinations behind the trade negotiations that truly keep audiences invested … that and the MVP-worthy lead performance, that is. If only the movie didn’t often feel like a Rah Rah advert for Monday Night Football. Kevin Costner made a name for himself with baseball flicks (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For the Love of the Game) but he takes to this pigskin dramedy brilliantly. Rather than The Longest Yawn, he makes a somewhat decent flick outright enjoyable for moviegoers. Under the direction of veteran filmmaker Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters), who makes split screen suddenly seem fresh and new, Draft Day is better than the material provided. Screenwriter Rajiv Joseph is the kind of guy you’d want on your pub trivia team for sports statistical minutia alone but the sometimes predictable storytelling feels quite Screenwriting 101 … until the ticking clock chess match of a climax recovers the story from any previous fumbles.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
***1/2 — American Beauty
A lion in Winter, spring, or any season for that matter, Captain America soldiers on in an impressively smart, sleek, and superior sequel that’s more of a superspy thriller than superhero actioner. In this PG-13-rated actioner, Steve Rogers (Evans) struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The World War II backstory lain, Winter Soldier tells a much more modern tale that still respects the past by brilliantly playing on Cap’s fish-out-of-water reluctant heroism with tongue firmly in cheek. All of this, however, gets delivered in the body of a fast-paced techno thriller with the white knuckle conspiratorial tone of a ‘70s spy caper. Without the razor-sharp casting and direction, however, this flick would tinkle like a spring shower rather than rage like a storm you want to chase right into the eye of Avengers 2.

Noah
Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly
*** — Boat Trippy
Raising a flood of inspiration and ire, Darren Aronofsky’s mystical-meets-Biblical take on Noah engagingly goes from Requiem for a Fever Dream to Man’s Black Swan Song in 2 hours and 20 minutes. In this PG-13-rated adventure, a man (Crowe) suffering visions of an apocalyptic deluge takes measures to protect his family (Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman). Of course, the Holy Book has always danced with mysticism … or vice versa. Look at The Bible with open eyes and it plays stranger than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Martin’s Game of Thrones, an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in historical fiction with dragons and magic. So, it makes the sense that the man who made mind-bending but eye-popping hippie dippy phooey The Fountain would forego a straight ahead literal interpretation of a child’s Bible story. Like Cecil B. DeMille on peyote, Darren Aronofsky has an epic vision. It’s a Goldilocks tale — sometimes he offers up aesthetics that are too hot, too cold, but occasionally produces many that are JUST right. It’s a successful failure, earning points for not playing it safe.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham
****1/2 — Plaza Sweet
Like a Bottle Rocket off of Rushmore into Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s Royal, Fantastic, and — yes — Grand latest takes up residence in your mind’s eye with nary of the Limited waterlogged whimsy of The Life Aquatic. In fact, it’s his masterwork … thus far. In this R-rated comedy, Anderson presents the adventures of Gustave H (Fiennes), a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel in a war-torn European nation, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend. Here, Anderson’s not just pulling the strings on a curriculum, family tree, or scout troop of his own design, the writer/director integrates filmgoers seamlessly into a decades-spanning multi-layered story set in a completely credible fictitious nation. Anderson’s charming verve, meticulously planned aesthetics and vintage-sounding wordsmithing work best when he keeps at least one of your feet on the ground even when he’s already stuck your head in the clouds. That’s the beauty of this particular check-in, however. Even the most fantastical moments (and there are many) somehow feel lived-in and rooted in some kind of nostalgic familiarity.

 

 

Screens

Screens

Opening this week

Rio 2
Voices of Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway
Pixar and Dreamworks aren’t the only game in town when it comes to blockbuster animation. With the gi-normous back-to-back-to-back-to-back success of the Ice Age series, 20th Century Animation found further franchise potential when Rio proved a carnival at the box office. Next up is Epic and Ice Age 5 … after Rio 2, that is. In this G-rated animated musical comedy, Blu (Eisenberg), Jewel (Hathaway) and their three kids get hurtled Rio de Janeiro to the wilds of the Amazon where they go beak-to-beak with the vengeful Nigel (Jemaine Clement) and meet the most fearsome adversary of all: Jewel’s father (Andy Garcia). The Plus: The franchise. Rio banked $143 million at the domestic box office. Moviegoers will flock to the follow-up — it’s just a question of: How much? Given that a holiday weekend is approaching, it’ll probably bank a lot. Plus, this flick boasts the A-List pipes of Eisenberg (Now You See Me), Hathaway (Les Miserables), Leslie Mann (This is 40), Kristin Chenoweth (Hit and Run), Clement (Men in Black 3), Rodrigo Santoro (The Last Stand), George Lopez (The Smurfs 2), Garcia (City Island), Jamie Foxx (White House Down), Tracy Morgan (NBC’s 30 Rock), Miguel Ferrer (CBS’s NCIS: Los Angeles) and Will.i.am (Date Night). The Minus: Sophomore slump. As Dreamworks recently discovered, for every hit like The Croods there’s a relative disappointment like Turbo waiting in the wings. It all comes down to quality.

Draft Day
Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner
It seems like it was just months ago that this column raved that Kevin Costner was the best part of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and deserved to be given a another shot at leading man status …uh, actually it was just weeks ago. Then came 3 Days to Kill. Be careful what you wish for. In this PG-13-rated sports drama, general manager Sonny Weaver (Costner) has the opportunity to rebuild his team when he sacrifices all to trade for the number one pick (Chadwick Boseman) at the NFL Draft. The Plus: The players. In addition to Costner (Man of Steel), Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) directs a cast includes Garner (The Dallas Buyers Club), Boseman (42), Joe Mangianello (Sabotage), Sam Elliot (Ghost Rider), Rosanna Arquette (Joe Dirt), Terry Crews (The Expendables 2), Frank Langella (Muppets Most Wanted), Denis Leary (The Amazing Spider-Man), Sean Combs (Get Him to the Greek) and Ellen Bursytn (Lifetime’s Flowers in the Attic) plus appearances by sports figures such as Arian Foster and Deion Sanders. The Minus: The reality. Remember when Reitman was a hot H’Wood commodity? Nope? Well, that’s because the film industry has a short memory when it comes to box office duds (Evolution, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, No Strings Attached). Though Costner certainly deserves a Liam Neeson-style career rejuvenation (Taken, The Grey), 3 Days to Kill shows evidence that he’s not being too choosy script-wise.

 

Now Playing

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
***1/2 — American Beauty
A lion in Winter, Spring or any season for that matter, Captain America soldiers on in an impressively smart, sleek and superior sequel that’s more of a superspy thriller than superhero actioner. In this PG-13-rated actioner, Steve Rogers (Evans) struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The First Avenger proved better than average though not by much. Of course, it held the dubious distinction of setting up a decades-spanning origin tale of a whitebread do-gooder who’s never seen the rock star popularity of fellow Marvel-ous heroes Spider-Man or the X-Men. With so much story and, perhaps, not as much audience interest, director Joe Johnston carved out an impressively rollicking niche in pre-Avengers moviedom. The World War II backstory lain, Winter Soldier tells a much more modern tale that still respects the past by brilliantly playing on Cap’s fish-out-of-water reluctant heroism with tongue firmly in cheek (see: Rogers walking through a Smithsonian exhibit on … well, him). All of this, however, gets delivered in the body of a fast-paced techno thriller with the white knuckle conspiratorial tone of a 70s spy caper. Capping off a star-making series of performances as super soldier Steve Rogers, Chris Evans perfectly provides the pulse behind the action. Blond, blue-eyed and chiseled, he looks the part of a white-hatted lunk but he genuinely shoulders the world as a superman-out-time. Providing whipsmart backup and whiplash moves, a knee-weakingly vampy Scarlet Johansson nearly makes moviegoers think this a double bill despite her supporting status. Without the razor-sharp precision of directors/brothers Anthony and Chris Russo, however, this flick would tinkle like a Spring shower rather than a storm you want to chase right into the eye of Avengers 2.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham
****1/2 – Plaza Sweet
Like a Bottle Rocket off of Rushmore into Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s Royal, Fantastic and — yes — Grand latest takes up residence in your mind’s eye with nary of the limited waterlogged whimsy of The Life Aquatic. In fact, it’s his masterwork … thus far. In this R-rated comedy, Anderson presents the adventures of Gustave H (Fiennes), a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel in a war-torn European nation, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend. Here, Anderson’s not just pulling the strings on a curriculum, family tree, or scout troop of his own design, the writer/director integrates filmgoers seamlessly into a decades-spanning multi-layered story set in a completely credible fictitious nation. Who DOES that? Well, it’s more of a question of: Who COULD do it? At first glance, with its patchwork of numerous A-List stars and minute details, Grand Budapest Hotel looks as dangerously over-indulgent as the way-too-whimsical Steve Zissou, which failed to tether filmgoers much — if at all — to reality. Anderson’s charming verve, meticulously planned aesthetics, and vintage-sounding wordsmithing work best when he keeps at least one of your feet on the ground even when he’s already stuck your head in the clouds. That’s the beauty of this particular check-in, however. Even the most fantastical moments (and there are many) somehow feel lived-in and rooted in some kind of nostalgic familiarity. As for the myriad of stars, they’re not simply stunt-casted. Rather, every character and performance plays an integral part in Anderson’s madcap mechanics. Fiennes, however, manages to wrap every viewer around his pinky — a high accolade given there’s nothing close to resembling a low point in this talent roster. True, you could gripe that Saoirse Ronan has a hard time hiding her Irish brogue, but that’s just nit-picking apart Anderson’s most adult, maudlin, yet loveliest work yet.

Noah
*** — Boat Trippy
Raising a flood of inspiration and ire, Darren Aronofsky’s mystical-meets-Biblical take on Noah engagingly goes from Requiem for a Fever Dream to Man’s Black Swan Song in 2 hours and 20 minutes. In this PG-13-rated adventure, a man (Crowe) suffering visions of an apocalyptic deluge takes measures to protect his family (Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman). Of course, the Holy Book has always danced with mysticism … or vice versa. Look at The Bible with open eyes and it plays stranger than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Martin’s Game of Thrones, an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in historical fiction with dragons and magic. So, it makes the sense that the man who made mind-bending but eye-popping hippie dippy phooey The Fountain would forego a straight ahead literal interpretation of a child’s Bible story. Like Cecil B. DeMille on peyote, Darren Aronofsky has an epic vision. It’s a Goldilocks tale — sometimes he offers up aesthetics that are too hot, too cold, but occasionally produces many that are JUST right. It’s a successful failure, earning points for not playing it safe.

Bad Words
Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn
***1/2 – Bee Cool
This reviewer has words for Bad Words and they’re mostly really good. In this R-rated foul-mouthed societal dust-up, a former spelling bee loser (Bateman) sets out to exact revenge by exploiting a loophole and attempting to win as an adult. Oh, the comedy is not without its bell-ringing missteps but nonetheless ends up to be a solid continuation of the H’Wood trend of adults behaving badly—Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, and Bad Grandpa. Littered with laugh-out-loud moments throughout its short running time, the movie succeeds chiefly because of the name above all others. Given that it’s a directorial debut, however, this name — B-A-T-E-M-A-N — deserves more than an honorable mention. True, the flick does cop out by un-Scrooging its curmudgeon, but it’s done with such style and, ahem, character that it’s definitely worth sitting a spell.

 

Small Screens

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig
***1/2 – Beautiful Dreamer
In this PG-rated fantasy adventure premiering on DVD on Tuesday, a day-dreamer who escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies (Stiller) embarks on a globe-trotting journey more extraordinary than anything he could have ever imagined. A colorful and rich fever dream that could’ve easily played out like a nightmare on screen, Ben Stiller’s not-so-Secret Life as a director instead colors outside of the H’Wood lines to great affect with his latest. Even Walter’s job in Negative Assets sounds innocuous, but the film presents a vibrant palette and expansive canvas that’s every bit as ambitious as Life of Pi. Finding invention in convention, Stiller expands James Thurber’s whimsical short story about a lovelorn daydreamer into a fantastical feature-length narrative about a forgettable everyman whose life turns unforgettable when his dreams inexorably become realities. Sure, the storyline becomes contrived at times but this rare shot of optimism truly taps into a fun-filled dreamstate.

Screens

Screens

Screens

by Jeff Boam

 

Opening This Week

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson
Blind Faith. Humble Pie. Power Station. The Honeydrippers. The Traveling Wilburys. These are what music fans call supergroups, glorified garage bands stuffed with more over-the-hill rock stars than an episode of Celebrity Rehab. But what about comic book movie supergroups? Well, with the blockbuster success of The Avengers in 2011, Marvel Studios realized its creative vision of uniting several franchises in one butt-kicking package. Blockbuster hit Iron Man 3 kicked off Phase 2, which led the way for Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy (Aug. 1, 2014), The Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1, 2015) and Ant-Man (July 17, 2015) … after The Winter Soldier, of course. In this PG-13-rated actioner, Steve Rogers (Evans) struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The Plus: The franchise. With a worldwide box office of over $370 million, Captain America: The First Avenger proved a super-sized hit for Marvel. The early buzz on its sequel, however, is even better. For this outing, we have Evans (What’s Your Number?), Johansson (Don Jon), Stan (Black Swan), Frank Grillo (The Grey), Samuel L. Jackson (RoboCop), Anthony Mackie (Pain & Gain) and Robert Redford (All is Lost) starring. The Minus: The expectation. The First Avenger ended up to be Marvel’s least successful performer so far as box office and reviews. With a 3rd Captain America reportedly already slotted for 2016, is Marvel getting ahead of itself and setting the bar too high?

 

Now Playing

Noah
Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly
*** — Boat Trippy
Raising a flood of inspiration and ire, Darren Aronofsky’s mystical-meets-Biblical take on Noah engagingly goes from Requiem for a Fever Dream to Man’s Black Swan Song in two hours and 20 minutes. In this PG-13-rated adventure directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler), a man (Crowe) suffering visions of an apocalyptic deluge takes measures to protect his family (Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman) from the coming flood. But to what end? Of course, the Holy Book has always danced with mysticism … or vice versa. Look at The Bible with open eyes and it plays stranger than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Martin’s Game of Thrones, an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in historical fiction with dragons and magic. So, it makes the sense that the man who made mind-bending but eye-popping hippie dippy phooey The Fountain would forego a straight ahead literal interpretation of a child’s Bible story. Instead of two giraffe heads sticking out of a wooden boat captained by a robed man with a big bushy white beard, filmgoers get a morality tale drenched with fantastical elements for better and worse. It’s a failing success. And a successful failure. But it’s bold and gets big points for not playing it safe. Like Cecil B. DeMille on peyote, Darren Aronofsky has an epic vision. Like Goldie Locks, sometimes he offers up aesthetics that are too hot, too cold, but does produce many that are JUST right. Fallen angels reimagined as giant rock creatures might prove irksome to some but how is it any more unbelievable than a 1,000 year-old-man named Methusaleh? Thankfully, part of the ‘just right’ results from the casting. Biblical hero and villain, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-of-his-badass-self Russell Crowe carries most of the weight to great effect. Emily Watson, however, steals away from her Harry Potter legacy with a gut-wrenchingly emotional turn.

Bad Words
Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn
***1/2 — Bee Cool
This reviewer has words for Bad Words and they’re mostly really good. In this R-rated comedy, a former spelling bee loser (Bateman) sets out to exact revenge by exploiting a loophole and attempting to win as an adult. Oh, the comedy is not without its bell-ringing missteps but nonetheless ends up to be a solid continuation of the H’Wood trend of adults behaving badly — Bad Santa, Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa being the dubious — but often hysterical — pioneers. Littered with laugh-out-loud moments throughout its short running time, the movie succeeds chiefly because of the name above all others. Given that it’s a directorial debut, however, this name — B-A-T-E-M-A-N — deserves more than an honorable mention. A former child actor who cut his teeth in the H’Wood sitcom trenches (Silver Spoons, The Hogan Family … Little House: A New Beginning), this actor re-captured the industry’s attention and re-ignited his career as Michael Bluth on Fox’s brilliant and irreverent cult hit sitcom Arrested Development. In raunchy comedies (Couples Retreat, Horrible Bosses), Oscar-baiting fare (Juno, Up in the Air), and summer blockbusters alike (Hancock, The Kingdom), he’s certainly earned the equivalent of a Purple Heart in comedy. Thankfully, for his first helming gig, he chose the appropriate laugh-getter in Bad Words, screenwriter Andrew Dodge’s foul-mouthed societal dust-up. True, the flick does cop out by un-Scrooging its curmudgeon, but it’s done with such style and, ahem, character that it’s definitely worth sitting a spell.

Sabotage
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington
**1/2 — True Sighs
An ambitious, bullets and brawn, blood-splattered bust, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s convoluted latest nonetheless ends up to be his best post-politico flick thanks to pure gall. Granted, calling the once and future Terminator’s new project his ‘recent best’ is as empty an accolade as calling Peter Dinklage H’Wood’s tallest short actor. In this R-rated actioner, members of an elite DEA task force (Schwarzenegger, Worthington, et al) find themselves being taken down one by one after they rob a drug cartel safe house. Twisty rather than straight-ahead, Sabotage falls far from being a lyric-for-lyric interpretation of the Beastie Boys song … though that narrative may’ve made more sense in the long run. Instead, moviegoers get presented with a tangled web of dirty Feds, dirtier drug cartels, and Hard R violence verging dangerously close on NC-17. A glorified shoot-‘em-up crammed with too much story, the script proves to be this project’s most gratuitous saboteur. Just because a who-done-it angle gets worked in doesn’t make it any less of a piece of action porn. For Schwarzenegger, it’s been a long crawl back, littered with C-Grade actioners that get appreciably better (The Last Stand, Escape Plan). These days, he seems to turn out higher grade flicks while working amongst more of an ensemble (The Expendables and its sequel), which Sabotage bares out. In allowing his fellow players more scenery chewing moments, this H’Wood legend actually elevates the material because he’s more thoughtful and restrained than in his other recent movies. Still, more was expected of David Ayer considering that this is the follow-up to his thinking man’s buddy cop flick End of Watch. Like James Ellroy with less of a sense of humor, this writer/director made a name for himself crafting oblique LA cop conspiracy tales mired in blood and bad decisions (screenwriter, Training Day; writer/director, Street Kings) before giving critics an A-Ha moment with Watch. With Sabotage, however, he seems to be regressing back to Harsh-er Times.

Divergent
Shailene Woodley, Theo James
*** — Deftly Hollows
Better than The Twilight Saga but never as good as The Hunger Games, Divergent is the latest YA fantasy adventure to make it to the big screen with all of the aplomb of a soggy paperback. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure, Tris (Woodley) learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in a world divided by factions based on virtues, so she infiltrates a war-like faction to discover her destiny. This adaptation skews way closer to Games, presenting a dystopian near-wasteland where its government-fearing denizens live an almost Quaker-like existence until unrest causes … hey, wake up! The ideology and theocracy behind the plot points are as paper thin as the script pages it was typed on, but Woodley runs with the role and never stops, hitting all of the emotional marks and taking countless beatings. Let’s hope the inevitable follow-up aspires more to Catching Fire than catching Eclipse though.

 

Small Screens

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd
***1/2 — Anchors Aweigh
In this PG-13-rated comedy new to DVD, former top rated San Diego newsman Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) returns to broadcasting to make New York’s first 24-hour news channel a ratings success in the 80s. Anchored by a sometimes bizarre but oftentimes gut-busting brand of humor, the continuing misadventures of Ron Burgundy defy the odds of comedy sequels and gives moviegoers a very worthwhile follow-up. A deuce to what’s very possibly become the most quoted comedy of the last quarter century could’ve turned out very (Ghostbusters 2) very (Caddyshack 2) very (The Odd Couple 2) badly for moviegoers. The Legend Continues proves quite the opposite, milking huge laughs, shoehorning in many funny cameos, and making a dead-on assessment of cable television news even when the jokes are too indulgently reverential to the first flick.

Screens

Screens

Screens

by Jeff Boam

 

Opening this week

Noah
Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly
Following close of the boot heels of Son of God, H’Wood has come down from the mountain with a slate of projects approaching Biblical proportions. Before Ridley Scott’s big budget epic Exodus starring Chrsitian Bale opens on December 12th, such faith-based flicks as God’s Not Dead (March 21st), Heaven is For Real (April 16th) and Left Behind (June 19th) will, ahem, grace screens. First, however, comes Noah. In this PG-13-rated adventure directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler), a man (Crowe) suffering visions of an apocalyptic deluge takes measures to protect his family (Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman) from the coming flood. The Plus: The players. For the follow-up to his Oscar-winning Black Swan, Aronofsky’s enlisted Crowe (Man of Steel), Anthony Hopkins (Thor: The Dark World), Connelly (The Dilemma), Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters), Ray Winstone (Snow White and the Huntsmen) and Nick Nolte (The Warrior). The Minus: The controversy. Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel have taken some liberties with the story, which reportedly puts forth more of a metaphysical disaster film not completely alien to The Fountain, the director’s most derided project yet. Granted King James did the same thing with The Bible, but certain religious groups are already picketing Noah, which, at 138 minutes, already has a check in the “against” column.

Sabotage
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington
In this R-rated actioner directed by David Ayer (screenwriter, Training Day; writer/director, Street Kings), members of an elite DEA task force (Schwarzenegger, Worthington, et al) find themselves being taken down one by one after they rob a drug cartel safe house. The Plus: The players. Adult moviegoers will be hot to catch Ayer’s follow-up to the well reviewed End of Watch, especially considering that the cast includes Schwarzenegger (the forthcoming Terminator: Genesis), Worthington (Man on a Ledge), Terrence Howard (Prisoners), Joe Manganiello (Magic Mike), Josh Holloway (ABC’s Lost), Max Martini (Captain Phillips) and Mireille Enos (World War Z). Based on the explosive Hard-R Red Band trailer, action fans won’t be disappointed. The Minus: The risk. Schwarzenegger’s post-gubernatorial H’Wood career has produced more plummets (The Last Stand, Escape Plan) than plaudits (The Expendables and its sequel). Hopefully, the fact that this is more of an ensemble will help more than hurt all involved.

 

Now playing

Divergent
Shailene Woodley, Theo James
*** — Deftly Hollows
Better than The Twilight Saga but never as good as The Hunger Games, Divergent is the latest YA fantasy adventure to make it to the big screen with all of the aplomb of a soggy paperback. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure, Tris (Woodley) learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in a world divided by factions based on virtues, so she infiltrates a faction to discover what makes Divergents so expendable to society before it’s too late. Of course, this adaptation skews way closer to the latter, presenting a dystopian near-wasteland where it’s government-fearing denizens live an almost Quaker-like existence. And granted, that series got exponentially better with the sequel, Catching Fire. Divergent, however, stands on its own slight merits. The ideology and theocracy behind the plot points look about as paper thin as the script pages it was written on, probably a hold-over from the novels on which they were based, which were criticized for the same infraction. The story — though far from ground-breaking — moves along at a brisk and exciting pace thanks to a strong main character, beautifully realized. Like a certain actress working from, er, in Hunger, Divergent works so well because of an amazing lead performance. Shailene Woodley runs with the role and never stops, hitting all of the emotional marks and administering – and taking – beatings for 2 plus hours. Without the stunning work of director Neil Burger, however, all would be for naught. Though the whole post-war district thing has gotten old, he manages to color outside the lines with enough verve and originality to warrant a sequel. Let’s hope the inevitable follow-up aspires more to Catching Fire than catching Eclipse though.

Muppets Most Wanted
Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey
***1/2 — The Great Muppet Capper
Pulling the perfect strings to give moviegoers a superb sequel, the Muppets present a Most Wanted — and most worthy — follow-up to their big 2011 return. In this PG-rated comedy adventure, the Muppets find themselves wrapped into a European jewel-heist caper headed by a Kermit the Frog look-alike and his dastardly sidekick (Gervais). Actually, it’s nearly superior, offering up whip-smart comedy, amazingly catchy tunes and head-turning cameos at a more rapid fire clip than their last go-round. Of course, it’s a sequel’s job to up the ante so the best that can be said about this next chapter is that it stands on equal ground with The Muppets — a high compliment indeed. What’s remarkable is how everything — from tone to wit to performance — gets accomplished with the exact same tone, style, and handmade precision that Jim Henson laid down in the ‘70s. Ultimately, Muppets Most Wanted is a modern romp that proves so hilarious and toe-tapping because it’s imbued with so much reverential Vaudeville nostalgia. In fact, so many of the best lines elicit more roars from adults than kids even though the latter can’t take their eyes off of these very unlikely felt stars. And speaking of stars, Ricky Gervais (just as unlikely a PG star given his acidic barbs lobbed while hosting the Golden Globe awards) kills it as their most frequent human counterpart, singing and dancing and equally plotting to the audience’s delight. Tina Fey and Ty Burrell likewise provide great backup to some legendary puppets who brought their A-Game for the second time in a row for this, their second Great Muppet Caper.

Need for Speed
Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper
*** ½ — An A-1 Day
A wet dream for gear heads and a pleasant surprise for moviegoers, better-than-ever-expected video game adaptation Need for Speed accelerates audiences to near awesomedom thanks to a Breaking Bad-ass performance and some high precision direction. In this PG-13-rated actioner, a street racing ex-con (Paul) who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross country race with revenge in mind. Yes, it’s keenly absurd: How else but in a H’Wood car actioner would an out-of-state ex-con on probation in a Shelby Cobra Mustang be able to get air-lifted by an Apache helicopter mid-chase? Oh, it’s not Shakespeare. It’s an 8-figure video game directed in the spirit of the late great Hal Needham (Smokey & the Bandit, Cannonball Run). Granted, Aaron Paul is much better than the material. Director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor), meanwhile, has an eye for detail and a great eye for capturing the piston-driving excitement of a chase flick.

300: Rise of an Empire
Sullivan Stapleton, Rodrigo Santoro
*** — Sores and Sandals
Though never as compellingly immediate as its predecessor, 300 companion piece Rise of an Empire gives moviegoers a visual treat despite a story lacking as much Spartan oomph. In this R-rated actioner, Greek general Themistokles (Stapleton) leads the charge against invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes (Santoro) and Artemisia (Eva Green), vengeful commander of the Persian navy. Termed a sidequel (part prequel, part sequel, all cash-in), this follow-up fails to pack as much punch as it’s forebear but this hardly makes it a failure. In fact, the blood-splattered breast-baring spectacle presents many fist-pumpingly exciting battle sequences worthy of the greatest swords and sandals epics. Replete with much tactical detail and much creative license, the sea-set skirmishes and the characters skirmishing make for an exciting adventure. It’s just rarely as exciting or hard-charging as its blueprint, a trailblazing piece of hyper-stylized techno pop that brilliantly realized pen and ink comic book sex and savagery on screen. Unfortunately. the sequel’s threadbare story just isn’t smart enough to match the intensity of the action.

 

Small Screens

The Wolf of Wall Street
Leo**** — Marty Never Sleeps
In this Hard-R white collar crime dramedy new to DVD, penny broker-turned-power broker Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) rises to a vaulted level of wealth and power only for the Feds to poke around his connections to crime and corruption. A long intoxicating lesson in excess, Martin Scorsese’s beautifully shot latest beds filmgoers down in a Wolf’s den so full of Valhallan decadence that they’ll feel the need for a penicillin shot afterwards. Granted, it’s a comfy and gorgeous affair but the NC-17-level of sex and drugs make the extreme violence in Scorsese’s Casino look like small potatoes. Indeed, the audience easily gets dragged into a Quaalude and prostitute-filled lifestyle that’s so infectious that it just about incites madness. That’s the lesson about this hopped-up Horatio Alger story run amuck, however. The system that allows this to happen IS a joke even if the all-too-real consequences are sobering. The camerawork proves breakneck and laugh-out-loud comedy bleeds through at every juncture — even explosive showdowns.

Screens

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by Jeff Boam

Opening this week

Divergent
Shailene Woodley, Theo James
After turning heads as George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendents, actress Shailene Woodley signed on to star in two teen romances, one laugh-filled (The Spectacular Now) and one tear-filled (The Fault in Our Stars, which is scheduled to bow on June 6th). Insurgent and Allegiant, the second and third novels of Veronica Roth’s young adult fantasy series about a dystopian version of Chicago, are already in pre-production to meet 2015 and 2016 release dates, respectively. First comes Divergent. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi adventure, Tris (Woodley) learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in a world divided by factions based on virtues. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late. The Plus: The source material. For an industry always looking to find the next Harry Potter or Twilight series, Divergent is a better bet than most. It already sold more than five million copies, maintains its continued long run on The New York Times’ Young Adult Best Seller list and won “Favorite Book” of 2011 in the Goodreads Choice Awards. Here, Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) directs Woodley (ABC’s The Secret Life of an American Teenager), James (Underworld: Awakening), Kate Winslet (Labor Day), Miles Teller (21 & Over), Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard), Zoe Kravitz (X-Men: First Class), Ray Stevenson (Punisher: War Zone), Ashley Judd (Olympus Has Fallen), Tony Goldwyn (ABC’s Scandal), Maggie Q (Priest) and Mekhi Phifer (Showtime’s House of Lies). The Minus: The odds. For every box office hit like Breaking Dawn or Deathly Hallows, there’s a dud like Beautiful Creatures or The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones waiting in the wings.

Muppets Most Wanted
Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais
Chances are, anyone who was born in the ‘70s remembers Jim Henson’s famous felt puppet creations, the Muppets, with great fondness. Between The Muppet Show on the small screen and the Trifecta of The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and Muppets Take Manhattan on the big screen, there was a lot to love to go around. With 2011’s The Muppets, Forgetting Sarah Marshall writer/star Jason Segel gave his childhood heroes the comeback they deserved. Now comes the sequel to that smash hit. In this PG-rated comedy adventure, the Muppets find themselves wrapped into an European jewel-heist caper headed by a Kermit the Frog look-alike and his dastardly sidekick (Gervais). The Plus: The brand. Here, and director David Bobin helms a cast that includes Fey (Admission), Gervais (The Invention of Lying), Ty Burell (ABC’s Modern Family), Tom Hiddleston (Thor: the Dark World), Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), Salma Hayek (Grown Ups 2), Lady Gaga (pop star, “Applause”), Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), Danny Trejo (Machete Kills), Ray Liotta (Killing Them Softly) and Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover Part III) from a screenplay from returning writer Nicholas Stoller. The Minus: The risk. The ‘90s brought on sequels like Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets from Space, the quality of which generated disinterest in moviegoers. With Most Wanted, Segel isn’t returning to the fold. Hopefully, his non-involvement isn’t a sign as to the project’s viability.

 

Now playing

Need for Speed
Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper
*** ½ — An A-1 Day
A wet dream for gear heads and a pleasant surprise for moviegoers, better-than-ever-expected video game adaptation Need for Speed accelerates audiences to near awesomedom thanks to a Breaking Bad-ass performance and some high precision direction. In this PG-13-rated actioner, a street racing ex-con (Paul) who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross country race with revenge in mind. His ex-partner, learning of the plan, places a massive bounty on his head as the race begins. Boys never grow up and this flick is a stellar testament to why they shouldn’t. Yes, it’s keenly absurd: How else but in a H’Wood car actioner would an out-of-state ex-con on probation in a Shelby Cobra Mustang be able to get air-lifted by an Apache helicopter mid-chase? Hell, it’s bullet-prone not bulletproof. The story presents a big budget vengeance on wheels and that’s what all involved give with supercharged horsepower. Oh, it’s not Shakespeare. It’s an eight-figure video game directed in the spirit of the late great Hal Needham (Smokey & the Bandit, Cannonball Run). Granted, Aaron Paul is much better than the material. His tears are real. He does things with the dialogue that come from a REAL place — not fake like a plastic fender. Director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor), meanwhile, has an eye for detail and a great eye for capturing the piston-driving excitement of a chase flick. Sure, we’ve all seen the Fast & Furious race-capades. But this is something more finely tuned. It’s not better story-wise, mind you, but it mostly justifies your WANT for speed.

300: Rise of an Empire
Sullivan Stapleton, Rodrigo Santoro
*** — Sores and Sandals
Though never as compellingly immediate as its predecessor, 300 companion piece Rise of an Empire gives moviegoers a visual treat despite a story lacking as much Spartan oomph. In this R-rated actioner, Greek general Themistokles (Stapleton) leads the charge against invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes (Santoro) and Artemisia (Eva Green), vengeful commander of the Persian navy. Termed a sidequel (part prequel, part sequel, all cash-in), this follow-up fails to pack as much punch as it’s forebear but this hardly makes it a failure. In fact, the blood-splattered breast-baring spectacle presents many fist-pumpingly exciting battle sequences worthy of the greatest swords and sandals epics. Replete with much tactical detail and much creative license, the sea-set skirmishes and the characters skirmishing make for an exciting adventure. It’s just rarely as exciting or hard-charging as its blueprint, a trailblazing piece of hyper-stylized techno pop that brilliantly realized pen and ink comic book sex and savagery on screen. Unfortunately. the sequel’s threadbare story just isn’t smart enough to match the intensity of the action.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman
Voices of Ty Burrell, Max Charles
**1/2 — Quantum Leak
A 90-minute wrinkle in your time, this occasionally funny but overly busy improbable history ends up to be a probably blistery. In this PG-rated animated comedy, the time-travelling adventures of an advanced canine (Burrell) and his adopted son (Charles), as they endeavor to fix a time rift they created. The original offered up a cockeyed trip through the history books that came laced with an acid wit. The modern rendering, however, incorporates a good degree of smart jokes and gags but panders more to kids while the convoluted story can’t be understood by some of the adults who brought them. Rather than just tell a good story, the script throws everything AND the kitchen sink at audiences including King Tut, time traveling dopplegangers, Abe Lincoln, space-time continuum wormholes, and a sub-plot involving Child Protective Services. By the time the inevitable saccharine life lesson comes, you’re too busy scratching your head to care.

Ride Along
Ice Cube, Kevin Hart
** — Flunk the Police
Ridden hard and left for dread, Ice Cube’s latest nearly brings moviegoers along on a straight up bust. Oh, it boasts some laughs, but sometimes makes audiences long for his PG-rated days pulling desk duty in family flicks. In this PG-13-rated comedy, a fast-talking security guard (Hart) joins a hard-nosed cop (Cube) on a 24-hour patrol of Atlanta in order to prove himself worthy of marrying the cop’s sister. The fact that the ridiculously formulaic Ride Along blatantly robs so many cliches from decades old police actioners speaks volumes about the comedy’s entertainment value overall, however. Once you stop shaking your head at the jaw dropping amount of stolen goods being sold as new kicks on screen, you can actually stop to appreciate the occasional yuks. They’re often derived from a recipe too, mind you, but the players at least bring some mad skills.

 

Small Screens

American Hustle
Christian Bale, Amy Adams
****1/2 — Silver Linings Rulebook
In this expertly played R-rated drama that’s new to DVD, con man Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and his seductive British partner (Adams) are forced to work for a wild FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) to infiltrate a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mob figures. Doing the Hustle exceedingly well, this exquisite American sting presents a real life period piece with a payoff so good that it’s practically a crime. With multiple voiceovers and a heavily tweaked history steering this narrative about Abscam, the film cons the audience into an engrossing true story that works quite a few angles. Rich with period detail and performances that feel lived in, David O. Russell’s film brilliantly finds humor in some very explosive circumstances. Of course, it helps that his fellow grifters include Bale, Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis CK and a cameo so good that you won’t mind the fact that you just had the wool pulled over their eyes. If it were any other year, Oscar would be doing the Hustle as well.

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by Jeff Boam

 

Opening this weekend

 

300: Rise of an Empire
Sullivan Stapleton, Rodrigo Santoro
In this R-rated actioner, Greek general Themistokles (Stapleton) leads the charge against invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes (Santoro) and Artemisia (Eva Green), vengeful commander of the Persian navy. The Plus: The original. Based on a comic book series by Frank Miller (Sin City) and directed by Zack Snyder (Man of Steel), bloody swords and sandals saga 300 broke box office records, made a star out of Gerald Butler (Olympus Has Fallen), and trailblazed some groundbreaking special effects, which replicated the imagery of the original comic book panels. Here, for the prequel/sequel, Noam Murro (Smart People) directs a cast that includes Stapleton (Animal Kingdom), Santoro (The Last Stand), Green (Dark Shadows), and Lena Headey (HBO’s Game of Thrones). The Minus: The odds. Except for Snyder, who produced and co-wrote the screenplay, none of the original players returned save for Headey (Dredd). In the hands of a relatively inexperienced director, this big budget follow-up just might hit the skids.

 

Now Playing

Non-Stop
Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore
*** — Taken to the Bank
Flying just high enough to give moviegoers a business class amount of frills and thrills, Non-Stop finds Liam Neeson in top form even when the story takes a familiar flight pattern. In this PG-13-rated actioner, an air marshal (Neeson) springs into action during a transatlantic flight after receiving a series of text messages that put his fellow passengers at risk unless the airline transfers $150 million into an off-shore account. Even when the action recipe gets followed to the ounce, however, the script offers up a few first-class twists that keep the action from becoming grounded (the ransomer’s bank account is in our hero’s name and a cleared suspect later reveals himself to be the villain). Not only does Non-Stop apart keep audiences guessing, but it’s better than the blockbuster Taken twofer put together. Not that this is a high mantle, mind you, but it doesn’t put viewers in the economy class with a shoot-‘em-up that should’ve gone direct to video either. Like Fred Astaire hoofing it in top hat and tails and Jackie Chan prat falling his way through chop socky fisticuffs, H’Wood plays to certain actor’s strengths time and time and time again, regardless of the looming threat of redundancy. Regardless of how unoriginal Taken and its sequel prove to be, Liam Neeson deserves his well-earned tenure as latter-day action star. He gets the job done brilliantly, looking every bit of his 61 years but convincingly doling out ass-whoopings at 10,000 feet. Non-Stop doesn’t reach sky high levels of entertainment but definitely stands head and shoulders above his last collaboration with Jaume Collet-Serra, the horrid excuse for entertainment called The Unknown.

Pompeii
Kit Harrington, Emily Browning
** — Pomp and Circumvent
Ashing in the face of famed ‘70s producer Irwin Allen, Pompeii takes Gladiator and pits it somewhere in between the Shake ‘n’ Bake twofer of classic H’Wood disaster movies Earthquake and Towering Inferno. In this PG-13-rated disaster flick from Paul W.S. Anderson (the Resident Evil franchise), a slave turned gladiator (Harrington) races against time to save his true love (Browning), who has been betrothed to a corrupt Roman Senator (Kiefer Sutherland) as Mount Vesuvius erupts around them. That description alone should make your brain swell with hot anticipation, but the actual experience inspires less adventure and more displeasure as you pretty much watch a B-Movie with a nine-figure budget unfold before your eyes. When it comes down to it, why does Asylum, producers of such direct-to-video mockbusters as Transmorphers and Titanic II, catch such flak when such a supposedly A-List production house like Filmdistrict is pretty much providing the same blockbuster-aping product at a much higher ticket price?

Son of God
Diogo Morgado, Amber Rose Revah
** — Least Temptation of Christ
Drawing masses to the cinemas for a Greatest Hits package of Bible stories featuring the Son of God, this patchwork re-edit of a History Channel mini-series offering filmgoers a faith-affirming saga from the cradle to the grave of Jesus Christ sadly turns potential wine into water. In this PG-13-rated drama, the life story of Jesus (Morgado) gets re-told from his humble birth through his teachings, crucifixion and ultimate resurrection. If you’ve seen illustrated picture books of the New Testament for children, you’ve already seen and realized the breadth of this literal interpretation of a family friendly Bible story. Honestly, Monty Python’s Life of Brian provides Christians with more Sunday School discussion points. Aside from a few tears and some blood stains, there’s very little exploration of the human side of God’s flesh form. What Mel Gibson did with the gritty but reverential The Passion of the Christ was awe-inspiring. What the abridged Jesus of Nazareth clone The Son of God does is simply duh-inspiring. Imagine the creator of earth revealing himself in human form to experience his creation’s tragic failings. It would and should result in more than a big-budget Little Golden Book. Looking like Barry Gibb after a teeth whitening, Diogo Morgado tries to inspire humbleness but often comes off looking smug. Of course, there’s very little bread and fishes dredged up from the script, which presents a straight-ahead re-reading of Anglicized scripture rather than a truthful dramatization of some earth-shattering events.

3 Days to Kill
Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld
** — Jack Ryan: Shadow Rebuke
There are worse ways to kill time than watching Kevin Costner’s predictable latest, but this bland bang bang flirts so much with boredom that the viewing feels like it’s taken you 3 Days to watch. In PG-13-rated actioner, Costner plays a dying Secret Service Agent trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Steinfeld) who gets offered an experimental drug that could save his life in exchange for one last assignment. It seems like it was just weeks ago that this column raved that Kevin Costner was the best part of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and lobbied for him to be given another shot at being an action hero. Well, be careful what you wish for. Oh, there are some clever tweaks to the recycled story but it’s not enough to save moviegoers from a mission called tedium. Thanks to a winning lead, you almost want to throw 3 Days to Kill a bone … but it’s 10 days shy of being a Costner Days flick we actually care about: Thirteen Days.

 

Small Screens

12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender
****1/2  — Roots Down
New to DVD following its Best Picture win at the Academy Awards, it’s 12 Years a Slave. In this R-rated drama based on an incredible pre-Civil War true story, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York (Chiwetel Ejiofor) gets abducted and sold into slavery in the Antebellum South. A Slave to no film before it, this amazingly rich but brutal true story earns a vaulted place as one of the best historical dramas of the last 12 Years, let alone one. It’s a blistering gut punch of authenticity that hits hard and stays with you. The performances sear (Ejiofor and Fassbender are assured Oscar nods), the writing crackles with truth, and director Steve McQueen captures this entire house on fire in long uninterrupted takes.